Upper-class society types with no real class whatsoever are skewered with gentle, deliberate stabs in BYU’s production of “The School for Scandal.”
Written 222 years ago in England by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, this farce-like comedy mocks with erudite language those who love and spread gossip.
Lady Sneerwell — get used to the name, they’re all like that — is the ringleader of a group of gossippers in high-society London. Sneerwell (Ruth Ellen Atkinson) would like to have the love of roguish lay-about Charles Surface (Casey Paul Griffiths), and plots with his older, more responsible brother Joseph (Brandon Michael Bringhurst) to get it.
Meanwhile, Joseph wants the hand (and money) of ingenue Maria (Anna Elizabeth Worthen), who is the ward of the semi-elderly Sir Peter Teazle (R. Jeremy Selim). Alas, Maria is also sought by Sir Benjamin Backbite (Benjamin Stull), and Joseph isn’t really devoting his full attention to Maria, anyway, as he is also wooing Lady Teazle (Rebekah Ruth Estrada), who isn’t particularly in love with her much-older husband.
Oh, then there’s the Surface brothers’ rich uncle (Martin Juul Sorensen), who arrives incognito in order to discern their true feelings toward him and thus decide upon an heir.
Confused? Well, that’s a bit of a problem: It’s unclear for a good while who or what the focus of the play is. Lady Sneerwell seems to be at the center, and indeed it is she who gets the most comeuppance at the end. But in between, we hardly see her. The whole subplot with the Surface brothers and their uncle uncle puts them at the forefront for a while, too.
Ultimately, very strong performances and a commanding stage presence from Selim as Sir Peter and Estrada as his wife make those two the focal point. Selim is understated and funny as Peter, and Estrada is vibrant and energetic — the closest thing to a real person in this show. When their characters’ relationship becomes the basis of a Sneerwell-perpetuated scandal, we realize how wrong all the other stories they’ve been telling, about characters we never meet, must have been, too. No longer is this gossipping funny; it’s downright inaccurate and unfair.
Kudos to costume designer Cathie McClellan and makeup/hair designer Andrea Kyriopoulos for their oustanding contributions. The vile Mrs. Candour (Melanie Joy Kieffer) is a delight to watch, and she owes much of that to her outlandishly wide dress and shrewish wig and makeup. Likewise Crabtree (Kevin Peterson), a bug-eyed, pompous, heavily painted buffoon whose braying performance reminds us of how transparent a gossip can be.
This is a challenging, ambitious piece for a graduate-student director (AdreAnn Sundrud) and a cast of student actors. All the characters speak in an affected, high-class British dialect. The accents are better with some than with others, and the numerous asides to the audience were hit-or-miss even after three public performances, because the actors’ timing was frequently off.
But there is great humor in this show, particularly after intermission, when the elements of farce really spring into action. It’s a show that must be paid attention to, as the language is high and the accents thick, but a careful viewer will be rewarded with a show that, while not perfect, doesn’t deserve to be back-bitten, either.
There's a lot of mincing and flouncing in this show. More than in, say, "The Crucible."
Martin Juul Sorensen, who played the rich uncle, was in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with me several months earlier. Martin is from Sweden, I believe, and has a Scandinavian accent to begin with. But to hear him combine that with a British accent is absolutely hysterical. The phrase "all of Christendom" caused me and my date to giggle well into the evening.